By Mauro Guia Samonte, January 26, 2019

TOWARD the end of 2018, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana surprised keen observers when he declared to the press that it was high time the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States was reviewed.

Reactions were varied. On the one hand, rabid anti-US advocates immediately saw the idea as a US ploy for making even stronger its position in the relationship. And on the other, similarly obsessed anti-Chinese mouthpieces hailed the move as a way of propping up the Philippines in its conflict with China over certain areas in the South China Sea.

In a meeting called by former Ambassador Alberto Encomienda three weeks ago (this was treated in my column last Sunday), the ambassador sought to clarify the issue from several standpoints. The diplomat explained that the MDT’s reason for being had become passé with the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (Seato), which in his perception had effectively supplanted the need for the Philippines to strike an individual military alliance with a country outside of the Southeast Asian grouping; that the MDT is a one-way affair to the favor of America which, for not having the treaty ratified by its Senate, is not obliged in any manner to retaliate automatically in case the Philippines is attacked by another country, say, China; and that having been rendered null and void by history, the MDT cannot be made the mother treaty for the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) concluded in 1998 and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2016.

Instead of a review of the MDT, the meeting reached a consensus that the MDT should be scrapped altogether. And doing this, I suggested, was easy. According to the treaty, all it takes is for either of the parties to notify the other that it doesn’t want the treaty anymore, and one year after, the treaty is deemed abrogated without further ado. That President Duterte hasn’t done so can only mean one thing: He is an Amboy.

“It doesn’t follow,” snapped somebody with instant passion. “Hindi pa naman tapos ang term niya (His term isn’t over yet). Wait till 2022.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (center) is welcomed by Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua (in maroon Chinese-style coat) Rear Admiral Xu Haihua and Rear Admiral Du Naihua (left), and commanders of the task group (right) when he went to visit the contingent of visiting Chinese Navy missile frigates at Manila’s South Harbor on January 17.

But the wait could be long, and between then and now, things feared of can happen. Who takes over in the event?

Perceptions are rife that President Duterte wouldn’t allow Leni Robredo to take over, but that such being a constitutional mandate, military action is perceived necessary to deny the vice president that prerogative. My own informant, who is a retired AFP general, deems it quite likely that the military will have to step in the moment there occurs a forcible ouster of Duterte — due to failing health, among other reasons.

In this context, Secretary Lorenzana’s recent actions are completely intelligible. Earlier taunted as being an Amboy, he seems to have executed a turnaround with his sudden proposal for a review of the MDT. The treaty works so well for the US that it is better left untouched. So, you would not propose to review it if you were an American stooge, would you? Very Duterte-like, you might even say.

Now, on January 17 this new year, the Escort Task Group (ETG) 539 of the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, consisting of missile frigates Wuhu and Handan and replenishment ship Dongpinghu arrived in Manila. Protocol would place the arrival as a goodwill visit, if done by one symbolic vessel. Done by a contingent composed of missile frigates, with a replenishment ship to boot, that visit should amount to something more than goodwill.

What?

A show of force?

The idea is not far-fetched. I remember sometime in March last year, a US Los Angeles class attack submarine, the USS Bremerton, docked at Subic Bay for, what was reported as a routine port visit. China, having gained control of the Scarborough Shoal beginning in 2012, expressed strongly worded concern over the matter. Scarborough is just a sail-by from Subic.

In like manner, in this current discussion, the ETG 539 of the PLA Navy was just a wave away from the US embassy Sunday last week when Defense Secretary Lorenzana went aboard the frigate Wuhu, docked at Pier 15 of the South Harbor. Somebody using simple binoculars could have cussed “WTF!” from a vantage point at the US legation as he watched Lorenzana being welcomed by Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, Rear Admiral Xu Haihua and Rear Admiral Du Naihua, and commanders of the task group.

In solo majesty, Secretary Lorenzana walked the red carpet laid out for him to review the honor guard, while the commanders of the task group maintained their distance off the carpet as they matched his stride.

Reports called the event a routine visit. My say? An occasion for seeking patterns in succession to the Philippine presidency.

Sorting data on past presidential successions, we come to determine the following dominant patterns:

1. From Defense Secretary – 2 times (Ramon Magsaysay in 1954, Fidel V. Ramos in 1992)

2. From Vice President – 2 times (Carlos P. Garcia in 1957, upon Magsaysay’s death; Joseph Estrada in 1998)

3. From Senate President – 2 times (Diosdado Macapagal in 1961, Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1965)

4. From a military coup – 2 times (Corazon Aquino in 1986, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2001)

If this be the regla (Tagalog for pattern) for succeeding President Duterte, then the chances are even-steven for the following: One who may be anybody, even you or me, so long as we are backed up by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP); Senate President Tito Sotto; Vice President Leni Robredo; and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. (Incidentally, former senator Bongbong Marcos remains a dark horse, given that his electoral protest at the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) may still swing in his favor.)

Choosing among the four is crucial at this stage when whispers about President Duterte having to give way to someone else for the post are getting louder every day. My informant swears he got this dossier from a member of PMA Class ‘86 to whom the President manifests deep friendship.

“Something is being cooked,” my informant avers. “Why is Class ‘86 all over? The Chief of Staff is from Class ‘86. The Chief of the Army is from Class ‘86, so are the Chiefs of Police and of Air Force. In fact, the entire division of the AFP in Southern Luzon is controlled by Class ‘86. This is because if she is prevented from assuming the presidency the moment it is vacated, then Leni would declare a revolutionary government based in Bicol. Class ‘86 is there to forestall this Leni move.”

Lorenzana’s current moves do betray that something big is happening hidden from the public eye. Whatever it is, we don’t know yet. But it must be something on which the continued existence of the MDT bears so heavily that it must be abrogated now and, at the same time, the quick cementing of a military alliance with China.

Moreover — and this could be the overbearing concern Secretary Lorenzana is addressing with his current efforts — such firming up of military ties with China is a necessity for cementing as a happy consequence the benefits the Philippines has already gained from the ceaseless Chinese push of the Belt and Road Initiative in this corner of the world.

It is no mean job the guy is doing. It is practicing already the art of statecraft.

As a diehard Lorenzana follower would put it, “OJT at the presidency.”